I went to Laos knowing I no longer wanted to work as an independent consultant in adult education and media. I saw the posting as a chance to begin to develop skills and a résumé as a writer, a role teachers had been encouraging since high school. Before leaving Virginia, I’d received assurance from the editor of our Fredericksburg paper that he’d welcome articles from me about Southeast Asia. Little did I know what else was in store…only some of which is reflected in my letters to family.
Did I mention that Russell will be leading a study tour for Lao officials to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in early June? I’ll go along to sightsee and write a column on each of these cities for my series in the Fredericksburg paper.
My writing is going well. This week I wrote an essay and mailed it to the newsletter of the Society for International Development in Washington.
I’ve heard from my editor at the Fredericksburg paper. He’s pleased with my articles and is going to publish them in a series starting around the end of this month.
The Women’s International Group (WIG) asked me to help revise the Vientiane Guide, a yearly publication for expatriates with information on everything they need to set up and maintain households, entertain themselves, etc. Proceeds go to local projects funded by WIG, of which I’m an inactive member (joined to show my support). I’m not keen on monthly kaffeeklatsches, etc., so I’m happy to help with the Guide. Hoping to make it look a bit more professional with improved writing and layout. Obviously, this is a little ticklish, because I don’t want to hurt the feelings of folks who’ve worked on it in past years. I’m taking it a few steps at a time.
My project with the Vientiane Guide is moving along. We create the text and most of the ads. I took photos of our local mini-mart for their ad and helped them with their copy (very detailed, but they want the expat community to know everything on offer). Another shop-owner’s response showed how little advertising is understood in a mixed economy: “But you should pay me to advertise in your publication.”
Russell is up to his eyebrows with final preparations for a conference in Bangkok next month aimed at attracting foreign investment to Laos. This means not only helping his nine Lao counterparts prepare their presentations, but also assisting a Thai firm with the development of a multi-screen slide-tape program on the topic.
The Lao felt the Thai production had too many pictures of buildings and signs, so I spent this week shooting slides of both Lao and expatriates in action. Getting permission to shoot in factories, schools and homes can be challenging. The exposed film will be developed in Bangkok, so we won’t know if we got anything good until it’s too late to do something about it — not a great way to accomplish this, but we’re doing the best we can and hoping for luck.
I leave tomorrow for Bangkok to meet our British friend, help her get a visa and bring her back to Vientiane (as we have to do for all our foreign guests). I’ve also been delegated to look at the proof of the brochure for the Lao-Thai Investment Conference next week and approve it or make changes before printing, as well as review the slide-tape program I mentioned before.
I’m trying to finish the second draft of the Guide, so my colleague, Clare, can review it while I’m gone. She returns home to Australia next week, so we need to have the text done before she leaves.
I received copies of pub-lished articles I’d written, one for the Fredericks-burg paper, the other for the Society for International Development. They each came with very positive letters, so that was encouraging.
Getting home a day late because of the messed-up return from Bangkok [chronicled in Post #18] put a lot of pressure on a lot of folks. The Guide meeting with Clare and the WIG artist who’s revising the maps had to be moved to Tuesday, instead of Monday, when I was returning by pickup and ferry. Russell had to leave Tuesday for Bangkok, which meant getting him packed and to the ferry, along with a new foreign staffer, in time for the overnight train to Bangkok. Tuesday was awful.
The Lao-Thai Investment Forum was very successful. The organizers had expected c. 250 people. Over 400 came. The slide-tape show was a highlight, using a number of slides I shot. We’ll be getting copies of those slides for use in future Lao publications, programs, etc.
I’m concentrating on the final edit of the Guide, keying in Clare’s revisions and my own. Then I’ll print the “dummy,” finish the ads and send the whole thing to the Lao Government printer (the only one in Vientiane). The WIG-member artist who volunteered to create the maps has done a really fine job, and I’m hopeful that we’ve got a professional product.
I’m meeting with the printer’s project manager today to show him the “dummy,” advertisements, artwork, etc. We’ll agree on a final price and schedule of production. Prayers are in order. I’ve devoted three months of my life to this project, and I’ll be glad when it’s out of my hands, out of the printer and out on the streets for sale.
I’ve finished an article on Jakarta for the Fredericksburg paper, turned down an editing job with UNICEF, agreed to work on a video, and (hopefully) put out a brush fire with the production of the Guide.
The director of the Government Printing Office called to say that his father died, so he’ll be away from Vientiane for a week and therefore the Guide won’t get done in time for the Christmas Bazaar this weekend. A long story short, I asked a German-speaking WIG member to come with me to talk with the Germany-trained Lao in charge of the project. Solution: I’ll come everyday to oversee work done and give immediate feedback as each 8-page sheet is prepared for printing, and we’ll pay overtime so the technical crew can meet the deadline. The printer will provide a second supervisor trained in the U.K., an English-speaker, so I can work through him to give feedback to all the folks involved.
The Guide is coming out of the printers in batches of 200. It still needs improvement, but we’re on the right track. It’s better than last year’s, and hopefully, next year’s will be better than this year’s. Sales are brisk, starting with scores sold at the Christmas Bazaar.
I’ve sold over $1400 worth of the Guide in less than a week! Needless to say, this makes the Women’s International Group very happy. We anticipate final sales of over $14,000, but this will take most of the year. At least we’re off to a good start.
Russell’s Foreign Investment Project team has decided to create a video which would be distributed to all Lao embassies and played in the Investment Service Center here and at conferences/forums. I’m writing the script with input from Lao and expat team members. I finished it Monday morning and turned it in that afternoon. Wednesday at 4:00, we had a feedback session, and I’ll do the re-write before we depart Friday afternoon for Investment Project meetings in Paris, Brussels, Boston and the East-West Center in Honolulu during “home leave.” The video project can go out for bids from Southeast Asian video-makers while we’re gone. We return in May, and the taping should start after the rains in October-November, with the final product ready in January.
I sold the Vientiane Guide to some bookstores in Bangkok. We’ve started work on the 1993 edition, so hectic times are about to begin. We hope to have a budget by mid-June, with research on the text and sales of ads through July. In August and September, we do text-revisions and layout-redesign, then print in October.
While I was in Fredericksburg on home leave, I met with the newspaper editor. He reiterated how much he likes my columns and wants more. We discussed additional topics, and I’ll get to work on those next week.
I’m preparing a budget for the 1993 Vientiane Guide, my least favorite task. Half my WIG committee is either departing for home leave or giving birth. Need new recruits.
Moving forward on the video project, I met with Russell and his team to review the implications of the bids received for that project. We’ve selected a Thai bidder, subject to their clarification of some unresolved issues.
We’re working on the third edition of Investment Opportunities in Lao PDR. I’ve helped with the cover design and have been asked to write a feature article on small investors here, not the least of whom is the American woman who’s revitalizing the silk industry. The Textile Museum in Washington is featuring her weavers in an upcoming publication.
WIG members endorsed my fund-raising idea — a fashion show using local fabrics. We had our first organizational meeting this morning, and folks are very enthusiastic. We hope to have it February 14 at the Mekong Restaurant, a nice Lao venue overlooking the river. The working title is “Mekong Magic,” and the show will feature both Lao and foreign designers using Lao cotton and/or silk. We’ll present clothes for typical Vientiane events; e.g., diplomatic reception, anniversary celebration at a restaurant, informal garden party, children’s birthday, goodbyes at the airport, dancing. Models will be all ages, sizes, genders and nationalities, including Lao. I’ve been asked to be the coordinator, some really super people helping.
Deborah, the Guide‘s art director, and I spent three days this week preparing the map for the Lao artist. For the first time, it’ll be full-color, 90 cm x 65 cm, suitable for framing. A lot of work, but we think it’ll also make a lot of difference for tourists and foreign residents. The map will be included in a pocket at the back of the Guide and also sold separately.
[Decades later, I returned to Vientiane and found that, indeed, many hotels had framed the map and put it in their reception areas. That they still valued it felt good, but that a more up-to-date map hadn’t been produced was discouraging.]
The committee has finished selling ads (over 80 this year!) We’ve earned more than our projected revenue. Proceeds from sales go to charity, so we prefer not to dip into sales revenue to pay printing costs.
I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping the Guide. The husband of one of the Guide Committee members has volunteered his powerful computer for desk-top publishing, so I prep chapter files in Word for input into his system. I can usually do three or four after lunch.
Around 6:00 p.m., I make a sandwich, pack some fruit and drive across town to their house. I load a chapter file into his computer, then lay it out with fancy typefaces, boxes, artwork and all sorts of goodies. By the end of the evening (usually after 11:00), I’ve got the three chapters I prepped during the afternoon about ready for printing.
I fall into bed somewhere around midnight. The next morning, I edit my work of the night before, trying to further refine language and design. Then I meet with the proofreader to review her work to date and discuss her new work (what I did the night before). After lunch, I start the cycle all over again.
In between, I try to oversee the household staff, the Lao artist who’s producing the full-color map of Vientiane, shop for groceries, etc. It’s demanding, but it’s fulfilling because I can see a much more professional Guide taking shape before my eyes.
The Guide went to press today after four months of hard work. Those who’ve seen it say it’s much improved over last year. Hopefully, I’ll take some with us to the Investment Forum in Sydney, where I anticipate selling them all. The remainder of the 1500 will be ready in time for the Women’s International Group Christmas Bazaar, Dec. 6.
Tomorrow, I start work on the slide-tape show which we’ll take to Sydney for the Forum. The timing is very short, but I’m hopeful we can finish something creditable.
I spent the better part of a week in Bangkok, taking care of several projects which can’t be accomplished in Laos — printing the full-color Vientiane map, researching studios and costs for a slide-tape program I’m producing for R’s host ministry, a medical checkup and various smaller things. Happy to say all went well. The proof of the map is terrific.
Now back in Vientiane, I’m creating the slide-tape show. Lots of slides to shoot and lots of donated slides to review. Rule of thumb is that in order to get 80 good slides for a simple slide show, you have to shoot or review 400. I returned here last Sunday, and I go back to Bangkok this Sunday with film for processing and existing slides for duplication.
We’ve decided not to record the sound for now and just have Russell present the show as an illustrated talk. This not only saves us production time, it also lets us “field test” the script prior to taping. The pressures of time may be a lucky break.
Turning to fashion show plans, we’re hoping the program can be videotaped, edited and shown on Lao TV. Copies of the video would then be available at cost for designers and other participants in the show.
My laptop bit the dust. It was designed for use in the field, on trips, etc., not day-in/day-out and especially not to publish a 150-page document like the Vientiane Guide. Luckily, I was able to add another computer to the procurement list Russell was ordering for the project, getting it at the discounted group rate (which I paid for).
We’re down to the wire with final prep for the Sydney Forum, and all the inevitable things are going wrong — officious officials refusing to sign routine travel documents, photocopying services that break down as we’re prepping 300 two-inch-thick manuals, folks who don’t show up for their photography session for the slide show, officials rewriting their speeches at the last minute, etc. etc. We feel this sort of thing is normal and it’ll all work out. Still, it’d be nice if it didn’t have to be this frenetic at the last minute.
I fly to Bangkok on Thursday, carrying the computer disc with graphic slides for processing and collecting the completed photographic slides which I took down before. I’ll then work in Bangkok to complete program production. Russell, Australian Ambassador Michael Mann, their staff members and 30 Lao will come down on Sunday. We’ll all stay overnight in the Airport Hotel and leave at the crack of dawn the next day. It’s a long flight to Sydney (Stockholm is nearer, although it doesn’t seem logical), and there’s a time-difference of several hours, so we expect to be pretty whipped when we arrive. We have to hit the ground running the next day, so I’m hoping for lots of rest on the plane.
As the Guide begins selling, we’re also working on the Fashion Show for February. The committee of WIG members and designers of all nationalities sometimes presents a challenge to bring everyone together, but so far, we’re progressing, and I’m hopeful we’ll have a successful event.
The Christmas Bazaar was wildly successful, earning some $6000, $2000 more than last year. We sold over $1000 worth of Guides at the Bazaar, and people were particularly enthusiastic over the new map. I then sold over $1000 worth in the two days since the Bazaar, so we’re on our way.
The Guide is selling like hotcakes (significantly above last year’s sales). I leave on Thursday to sell it in Bangkok, as well as do some more work on the Investment slide-tape show so it’ll be ready for future events.
I’m finalizing the production budget for the slide-tape show so we can get the second tranche of grant money from Asia Foundation (funder). I should finish that up tonight and fax it to Russell tomorrow, so he can present it to the Foundation while he’s in Bangkok. Then, if all goes well, we’ll record sound next week and do the final version of the graphic slides. The show should be available for the Tourism conference here next month.
I’m also putting the latest edition of the Investment Opportunities journal to bed. Normally, this would be Russell’s baby, but since he’s so busy with the upcoming European Forum, I got recruited. This entails finalizing all the ads, including layout; editing the last article to come in (about the first national elections in more than 15 years — over 90% voted); liaising with the desktop publisher and the printer. I’m enjoying working with Russell’s staff and on a publication other than the Guide.
The fashion show has been cancelled. I met with the logistics-coordinator and the designers-coordinator to assess where we were, what had to be done and our resources. We realized we didn’t have a good chance of success. Our main designer of men’s clothes was in hospital with hepatitis, and the chief designer of couturier silk had extended her home leave. We didn’t have volunteers for key jobs, and folks seemed tired from working on the successful Christmas Bazaar. To top it off, the Women’s International Group is in the midst of elections, so there’s not a lot of active leadership at the moment. Sometimes it’s braver to say “no” than “go.” So that’s what we did. It was my suggestion, and I feel good about it. There’s no point in doing it if you can’t do it well.
[I left some nitty-gritty details of this decision out of my family letter. Those details were useful later, when I began plotting the novel that became Malice on the Mekong.]
I finished an article for Dok Champa, the Lao Aviation inflight magazine, and another for the UNESCO Courier. It meant some late nights, but I was glad to write them.
I’m hoping to turn over responsibilities for the Guide before I leave for Europe at the end of this month. It’s been an interesting and growth-full two years for me (and profitable for the Women’s International Group), but I’m looking forward to passing it on to someone else.
[Sadly, WIG didn’t find anyone to take the job, and 1993 became the last year for the Vientiane Guide. In retrospect, I realize that I most likely took the project too far, too fast. Supposedly a development professional, I forgot the cardinal principle of sustainability.]
We have some vacation time left, so we’re going to Hong Kong and Macao to celebrate Russell’s 50th birthday. The trip also allows me to accomplish audiovisual business. I’ll go down to Bangkok a day early, taking the Investment program slides for duping, and return a day late, collecting the dupes. While in Hong Kong, I hope to buy the Kodak Carousel projector that looks like a TV for showing the S-T program in an office or small meeting, with additional capability to project onto a big screen for larger audiences. This equipment is not available here and costs a small fortune in Bangkok.
I returned from our trip to find myself twice-published: 1) my letter to the editor about the proposed Siam Commercial Bank tower destroying a colonial building appeared, with photos, in Bangkok’s The Nation; and 2) my article on “The Fabulous Fabrics of Laos” was featured in the first edition of Dok Champa. I also had a job offer as Chief-of-Party for a media project in Malawi. I declined the offer because I want to do other things in the coming months, but it was still nice to be wanted.
We were told by a Vice-Minister that my letter to the editor about the Siam Commercial Bank and the destruction of Vientiane’s architectural heritage was widely circulated through the highest levels of the Lao Government and was a major factor in the Government taking action. The scuttlebutt is that a historical district will be established with an official register of historical structures, and the specific building will be saved. Our informant said that I’d expressed the Lao position very well. The next step, of course, is for the Lao to feel free to write the Vientiane and Bangkok editors with their own thoughts and not through friendly foreigners. Still, all this is a sign of transition from the way things were only two years ago.
Photos from “Biking through Vientiane”
I just completed an article called “Biking Through Vientiane” which will be in the next edition of the Lao Aviation magazine. I also took the photographs and drew the map, so it’s a triple whammy.
Working hard to get my last article for the Investment Opportunities journal done by the end of this week. The editorial board gave me the green light to do a cover story on Lao Government efforts to preserve Vientiane’s architectural heritage. We’ll feature not only Government plans, but also the renovation and preservation efforts of both large and small investors. Not a bad way to end my sojourn here.
* * *
Being paid is a sign that the world values what you do, nurturing your own sense of worth. All my “work” in Laos was unpaid, with the exception of small honoraria from Dok Champa. I believed then, and I do now, that mine was meaningful work contributing to the country and its people. But I was still left with a sense of loss from the days when I was a professional. One career had ended, but another had not yet begun.
I’m not sure how the situation is now. In my era, women who thought of themselves as professionals often found being a “dependent spouse” crippling. Such women could see their careers wrecked because of one or more factors:
1. They might be denied the opportunity to work in their professions because…
a) the host-country authorities don’t want a foreigner to take the job a local national could perform, thus securing employment for their own people; I mentioned this in Post #4, when I was writing and producing a film in East Africa.
b) the host-country authorities might not want foreigners to practice their professions as volunteers, because it would expose what local nationals weren’t able to accomplish. For example, a friend in East Africa, a masters-degree maternity nurse, wanted to set up a free well-baby clinic for rural mothers in our area. She was denied permission, because the local government didn’t want to call attention to the fact that they themselves couldn’t offer such a service.
c) their husband’s employer could have anti-nepotism rules about hiring a spouse, so for example, the doctor-husband would be permitted to work on a rural medical project, but not his nurse-wife (unless she was willing to volunteer, as I did when helping produce media for Russell’s project in Laos).
d) some countries even forbade volunteer work, either in one’s profession or anything else; e.g. in Laos, Women’s International Group members were only permitted to raise funds for on-going Lao endeavors, not actively help in hospitals, schools, etc.
2. If a dependent spouse did find paid work in her professional field, it was usually as a “local hire,” which meant a greatly reduced salary, responsibility without a commensurate title, and/or a lack of continuity in her work record. In such cases, she would find herself falling further and further behind her husband’s career.
Even if she were seeking a new career path, as I was while living in Vientiane, the options might be limited. I felt I made a good effort at building skills and a résumé as a writer, but it didn’t help much later. But those are stories for future “Where in the World?” posts.[Let the record show that a few male dependent spouses were also found here and there. They experienced the same trials and could have the same destructive responses that I depicted in Malice on the Mekong.]
COMING NEXT MONTH
1993: Leaving Laos
It’s not just packing up and saying goodbye.
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